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Restructuring society through doing business

Hannah Gardiner

Hannah Gardiner, our new Consultancy and Innovation Manager started with us in August and attended inspiring conferences in October in the contrasting locations of Bogota and Cumbernauld. Here she shares her reflections on systems change and social enterprise.

At the beginning of October I received a sponsorship from Audi to attend One Young World, in Bogota, Columbia. The conference is aimed at inspiring young leaders, especially those working within corporate organisations, to take action to forward the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It was an intense four days of hearing about inspiring projects and triumph in the face of many hardships from young people all over the world, such as Rumaitha who is alleviating unemployment and increasing food security through aquaculture, or Ahmed Nassar who is lifting Egyptians out of poverty through education.

Opening the conference the mayor of Bogota discussed in his speech how competitive market economies need inequality in order to function, proposing equality in access to transport and green spaces as one way to chip away at this in urban spaces. This is certainly a challenge we share in the UK, and that we continue to work on here at Shared Assets.  A study in 2010 from CABE found that “if you live in a deprived inner-city area you have access to five times fewer public parks and good-quality general green space than people in more affluent areas.” Current cuts to local authority parks budgets risk widening this inequality.

Following this one of the first talks of the conference and which has stuck with me was from Mohammad Yunus. He pioneered the concept of microfinance and champions the social business concept. He discusses that the businesses must make money to be self-sustaining, but must be cause driven – not focusing on profit. Those involved must not expect to get a personal financial gain from the business (beyond wages). Investors can recoup their investment but no more, in fact he posits that even by having 1% dividends your vision can be muddied by the ‘profit goggles’. He proposes seven principles for social business (see below)

Seven principles of social business

  1. Business objective will be to overcome poverty, or one or more problems (such as education, health, technology access, and environment) which threaten people and society; not profit maximization.
  2. Financial and economic sustainability
  3. Investors get back their investment amount only. No dividend is given beyond investment money
  4. When the investment amount is paid back, company profit stays with the company for expansion and improvement
  5. Gender sensitive and environmentally conscious
  6. Workforce gets market wage with better working conditions
  7. …Do it with joy

During the talk he described how in the current system there are power funnels pulling all the profit to the top, and that when we create and run social business we create different structures which push money and resources outwards instead of upwards. By doing social business we are actually fundamentally restructuring society, through changing resource flow dynamics. This kind of practical systems change resonates with me, and with the work I see carried out and supported by the good people I am surrounded by.

This sentiment was only strengthened by the days spent at the Making Local Woods Work / Community Woodlands Association conference in Cumbernauld which followed, meeting and hearing from so many people in UK who are preserving woodlands through enterprising approaches to their management. What became clear to me through the conference is that many of those starting these enterprises have big ambitions to solve many local challenges in their areas. Most are using their businesses as a platform to support young people who struggle in the classroom or are providing traineeships for people to get into work, and many have aspirations to build affordable housing with the timber they create, whilst in tandem creating jobs in their communities. This is precisely the kind of opportunist, ethically integrated problem solving that I believe Yunus talks about (whatever label you want to put on it).

“Look at how the current system works and do the opposite…
conventional banks go to the rich - we go to the poor, conventional banks go to men - we go to women, conventional banks are owned by rich people - Grameen bank is owned by poor people...” Muhammad Yunus

Finally I attended the Hello Tomorrow Summit in Paris, this global non-profit aims to accelerate technologies which will have a positive impact on society to the market. Over two days I was wowed by such futuristic solutions, including;  flying taxis from Lillium capable of vertical take off and landing, and an on-demand modular autonomous transportation offering. The thing that struck me, was that those whose offerings were most innovative and exciting were not just creating technology, but actually fundamentally imagining a different way of doing business and indeed enacting our everyday lives. For example mobotiq, who through their ‘factory in a shipping container’ manufacturing for their innovative mobility product, (see picture below) aim to bring manufacturing back to a local level. Or Aerofarm who are taking vertical farming to the mainstream in the US, whilst activating underutilised city spaces, creating jobs and reducing food miles and waste. Our cities and our world are going to look very different in 10 years time, and although the tag line of the conference was “the future belongs to those who understand it”, I think the truth is that the future belongs to those who can imagine it.

Whilst I believe in democracy, changing the ‘face’ at the head of the system does not necessarily change the dynamics of the system which have and are creating inequalities and problems for many of us. By being aware of system dynamics and looking for feedback loops, goals and structures which drive behaviour (including our own behaviour) we can reimagine structures around us to direct resources and enable our lives in ways which are more useful for everyone, and for the planet. Social business and social enterprise are one framework we can utilise to do this, and within the current restructuring taking place within the UK right now they are needed. Shared Assets work on enterprising parks and woodland management is another example and one I am glad to now be contributing to. If we can all be empowered to become ‘job creators’ instead of ‘job seeker’s’ perhaps we can create together a decentralised reality, reduce inequality, and end with a more responsive and resilient society

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